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Conservative-NDP detente comes right out of the Ralph Klein playbook

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Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein

If you're wondering where most of Stephen Harper's big political ideas come from, look no further than Alberta.

And so it is with this holiday season's Conservative-NDP détente, which is whipping the federal Liberals into a froth of self-righteous frustration. The prime minister has torn this particular page right out of the Ralph Klein playbook.

As premier of Alberta, Klein was always careful to ensure that the Alberta NDP, if it didn't exactly prosper, at least would live long. That way, to the intense frustration of those who imagine social democratic voters in Alberta would all happily vote for a "united alternative" led by the Liberals, the NDP could always bleed off the Liberal vote in the generally more progressive Edmonton region come election time.

Thus after the general elections of 1997 and 2001 under Klein's premiership, Alberta's victorious Conservatives granted the provincial New Democrats official party status and the cash and perks that went with it despite the fact they failed to win the four seats required.

Klein's successor, Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach, continued this tradition in 2008 in the same circumstances, for the same reasons and with much the same results.

Politics being the art of the possible, this small Conservative kindness has made plenty of sense from both the Conservative and NDP perspectives. From the Conservative point of view, it minimized any threat that might be presented by the Alberta Liberals from time to time. From the New Democrats' viewpoint, it helped keep the social democratic option alive in Alberta and the NDP in the game.

So why shouldn't two political parties in such circumstances help one another? It's not as if the Alberta Liberals were offering policies identical to the New Democrats' in most years. On the contrary, historically in Alberta as at the national level, Liberal policies trend closer those of the Conservatives than those of the NDP.

Alberta New Democrats never felt they owed it to the Alberta Liberals to commit suicide just because the Liberals were ever so slightly to the left of the Conservatives, and why should they have?

If someday soon the Conservatives are replaced by the Wildrose Alliance as the government of Alberta, it seems likely that this same dynamic will continue to be played out in the Alberta Legislature for the same sensible reasons.

It's hard to feel much sympathy with those Alberta Liberal supporters unhappy with this arrangement because it is, after all, politics as usual. Would the Liberals play it any differently in the same circumstances? Of course not!

All the same arguments for this arrangement apply at the national level, except that the policies of federal Liberals and Conservatives are even closer than are those of the two parties' counterparts here in Alberta. Indeed, if anything, they've drifted even closer together from a policy perspective under the leadership of Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff.

The Liberals will do whatever they can to avoid a national election if it is not to their advantage. Why should they ask NDP Leader Jack Layton and his caucus to do any differently? Certainly -- in Ottawa as in Edmonton -- the New Democrats are under no moral obligation to destroy themselves politically to suit Ignatieff's ambitions.

When the Liberals dismiss the "common ground" between New Democrats and the Conservatives as mere political convenience, they are just whining. It's always a little unseemly when politicians complain that other politicians are playing politics. That's the name of the game! This complaint, after all, is being made by the party that foolishly dropped the idea of a democratic coalition with the NDP the instant Ignatieff saw an opportunity to have it all for himself.

But if the Ignatieff Liberals would prefer this arrangement to be cast as a question of high principle, then that can be done too. That is because, for all the many sins of the minority Conservative government under Harper, Canada is far better served by continuation of the present minority situation with a strong NDP contingent in Parliament than by either a large Harper Conservative or Ignatieff Liberal majority in Parliament.

If by working with the Conservatives, the NDP can hold the government's feet to the fire to achieve sensible and fair policies that help low-income seniors and the unemployed, Canadians will be better off.

If by working with the Conservatives, the NDP can establish the credibility needed to become the Opposition in Parliament, or eventually even the government of Canada, then politics as usual will truly have paid dividends for the Canadian people.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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